When friend and fellow Mountain Music Club member Dan from coastal Massachusetts recently sent a link to The Guardian newspaper’s Patti Smith profile, the powerful poet-singer came into sharper focus than that background awareness her 1970s work earned. It’s a good overview, in the U.K. paper’s ongoing series recommending entry points into recording artists’ work.
I came late to that party, but the admiration of others, particularly musician friends brought me back to her like the Guardian story. Link, below.
One musician fan, New Yorker City kid Tom Dimopoulos, led a highly theatrical 1980s punk band here called bx721, after its post office box. He told me about seeing her early on, in lower Manhattan. Coming up out of the subway into the light of daybreak on his way home, uplifted by her show, he felt inspired to believe more strongly in himself and his possibilities than he ever imagined. That feeling has powered his art ever since. bx721 was a hoot, fronted by Jack Nemier who wore an electric suit – conventional office garb glittering with hundreds of tiny Christmas tree lights. Dimopoulos now lives in Saratoga Springs, works mainly as a scribe and shows up often at the same concerts I do.
Another musician/Patti Smith fan is Michael Eck, sometime music writer, former publicist and now marketing writer for the Oregon musical instrument crafters Two Old Hippies. He revered her and once got to play a show with her. More than the late great Greg Haymes, more than I, Eck was a tough crowd when writing about music for the Times Union. After seeing Billy Ray Cyrus in his “Achy-Breaky Heart Days,” Eck wrote, “I bet Billy Ray Cyrus voted for the fat Elvis stamp” – best lead I ever saw on a concert review. He said Patti’s close-up presence empowered him in much the way Tom D. describes.
Michael Stipe (ex-R.E.M.) is another fan. He turned up, surprising the audience, at her show last year in New York’s Webster Hall. Stipe told Ethan Kaplan of a Smith fan site that he discovered Smith at 15 when her “Horses” album hit him hard. The album, he said, “tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order. I was like ‘Shit, yeah, oh my god!’ then I threw up.”
Now, that’s a fan.
As Rolling Stone reported in January, Stipe also has objected to trump using R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” as his rallies and that he once told trump off for talking during Smith’s set at a late-90s benefit at Joe’s Pub in New York. Stipe told him to “shut up” and trump left instead. But I digress.
I’ve seen a handful of Smith shows, most notably at MASSMoCA in N. Adams, Mass., early in that venue’s history; and at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. MASSMoCA was really lucky, or discerning, setting the stage for Wilco’s Solid Sound and FreshGrass festivals. Their first-ever show was by Los Lobos. I wrote in the Gazette that, “Los Lobos played the first-ever concert at MASS MoCA on Memorial Day weekend in 1999, masterfully christening a performance space that shouldn’t work half as well as it does. They played in a (13-sided) courtyard surrounded by brick and glass walls that I expected to echo the music in all directions, a cacophonous blur.”
Smith’s show there a year later confirmed the place worked for music. Her setlist:
Beneath the Southern Cross
Boy Cried Wolf
Lo and Beholden
Don’t Say Nothing
Because the Night
Pissing in a River
Be My Baby
Glitter in Their Eyes
Pissing in a River
Be My Baby
As for Patti Smith at Jazz Fest, I love seeing stuff happen there that’s outside the New Orleans tradition or sound, and watching it work anyway; including Richard Thompson and, surprisingly, Tower of Power. Both debuted there in 2008, my first Jazz Fest; I saw Smith play there in 2013.
However, I missed a mid-70s Smith concert at Union College Memorial Chapel. Michael Patnode (class of 1977), reported in a college mag, “Another concert we booked was Patti Smith, whose appeal we thought was more confined to the New York City area. A large number of black-clad audience members appeared on campus, showing us there was a hunger in the area for a diverse range of programming.”
I like the moral force of Smith’s shows. I’ve always liked the band, too. Maybe the most New York ensemble this side of the Ramones, Willie Nile borrowed some of her guys for his first albums and tours. She has that thing I admire most. When she steps onstage, you know in your soul that she means it. And she somehow gives other artists (Stipe, Dimopoulos, Eck) permission to mean it, too.
In this, I see her as a sort of lesser Bob Dylan – professional poet, amateur rocker, masterly persona, towering inspiration – until they welded those parts together so tightly we can’t see the seams any more. Dylan may be better – or, was – at the creative component of myth-making, but she became his equal in self-promotion.
I haven’t kept up with her records since the earliest ones. When I get them in the mail, I put them on the listen-shelf for later and sometimes take years to retrieve and listen to them. Maybe she deserves more immediate attention, as Stephen, host of the Mountain Music Club, has suggested.
Though I’ve enjoyed her books “Just Kids” and “M Train” maybe more than her later albums, when I grabbed some recently she opened my ears again.
I started at the beginning and leaped forward with “Patti Smith Horses/Horses – Legacy Edition.” This two-CD set stands her original 1975 album alongside a 2005 live show of the whole album in London’s Royal Festival Hall – to thrilling effect.
The original has the home-made fervor that made punk so exhilarating, inspired amateurs blowing past rules of composition, arranging and performance they hadn’t taken time to learn yet.
The live versions, 30 years later, retain all that adrenaline, plus assurance. We hear obvious differences in craft. Her voice has thickened some but still soars and she whips it just as hard. The band plays better but respects the original arrangements.
Both versions of her first songs stand tall with undiminished conviction, a now-weathered but still defiant optimism. The originals rise from the lower Manhattan CBGBs funk-frantic fog on the effortless faith and impatience of youth. The later live ones carry something harder and smoother, polished by effort and endurance, stoic and earned over time.
If the deluxe two-CD decades-apart “Horses” testifies to her enduring relevance; so do “Trampin’” (2004) and “Twelve” (2007) – in effect another two-fer. “Trampin’” is originals, “Twelve” is covers; both made with guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, with her from the first; plus bassist Tony Shanahan. (Original bassist Ivan Kral [1975-78; “Horses,” “Radio Ethiopia,” “Easter” and “Wave”] died in February. Guitarist Tom Verlaine [Television] and bassist Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers] guest on the live “Horses” 2005 tracks. Guitarist Oliver Ray joined the Patti Smith Group on “Trampin’”. But we digress.)
Here, let me yield to Robert Christgau – greatest record reviewer in print.
Trampin’ “No, she hasn’t regained her sense of humor, but aren’t you fast losing yours? ‘I’m no Sufi but I’ll give it a whirl’ makes light enough of the mystic path her political obsessions follow. And if sometimes her hymns vague out like ‘Trespasses’ or over-generalize like ‘Jubilee,’ the boho reminisce of ‘In My Blakean Year’ represents where she’s coming from, the sweet solemnity of ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ sings the sacred, and the amateur-Arabist rant-and-release of ‘Radio Baghdad’ speaks poetry to power. It won’t prevail. But it’s a comfort. B+”
The stand out “Trampin’” songs for me have a lighter touch than the machine-shop rockers: the guitar chiming “Cartwheels,” the relaxed stroll of “Gandhi” and “Trespasses,” the cozy atmospherics of “Peaceable Kingdom.” “Radio Baghdad” gives both, a Cowboy Junkies intro to a punchy build echoing “The Other One,” down to a recited lament, then a re-rant, then back to Cowboy Junkies’ tree-lined Toronto. The title track maps a pilgrimage to hard-won peace.
Twelve “Three decades after Smith made the transition from poet to rock & roller, we still don’t think of her as a singer, exactly — more a reciter who can carry a tune, kind of. So a covers album showcasing her interpretive gifts is a questionable vehicle. And like most such albums — there are dozens by now — it’s somewhat hit-or-miss. But when Smith hits, it isn’t just a bull’s-eye — the arrow splits the apple and then brings down the bad guy hiding behind the tree. It takes a poet to extract the lyricism of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ from its guitaristics and an avant-gardist to validate a middlebrow tour de force like Paul Simon’s ‘The Boy in the Bubble.’ And though other winners are more obvious, you’ll be convinced that this woman felt ‘Gimme Shelter’ very deeply — and many years later, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ too.”
OK, these are can’t-miss tunes, time-tested by a billion radio plays; but that doesn’t mean every cover will work. These do, for the same reason the 2005 live “Horses” tunes are good as the 1975 originals. She means it, in an act-her-age way. That’s more important and powerful than how she pans her voice left to right in the same cheap-trick-but-it-works way that Hendrix does in “Are You Experienced?” – great guitar noise, too – оr sings a mix of pinched pop staccato and poet’s flow in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” against Kaye’s Jerry Garcia-like curls and swirls. We might quibble with her mannered, too-on-the-nose Neil-isms on “Helpless,” but she can do Mick all day long on “Gimme Shelter” and even gets the soul bounce of “Pastime Paradise” – love Shanahan’s James Jamerson bass-isms there, too.
She knows just what to do with these songs she loves as much as those who made them, and those of us who wore out our vinyl originals.
We’ve talked mostly about the sound of her music, but what about the sense of it, the message and meaning?
Four words: “Power to the people!”
Patti Smith is still a punk, a poet, a provocateur. She still feels like coming into the sunlight from the subway – or up from troubles, from confusion, from doubt.